The plan for a four-day weekend is to head up to the Wapta Icefields, north of Lake Louise, do the standard north-south traverse and bag some peaks along the way. Things don’t always happen as planned…
Marc and I drive out from Calgary at a leisurely time of 9, taking two cars so that we can drop one off at the Great Divide Inn at the southern end of the Wapta and take the other one to Bow Lake, where we are skiing in from. We will be meeting up with Ben, Josef and Phil, who went into Peyto Hut yesterday. The drive from Calgary plus car shuttle takes some time, and we are skiing by 1:00, plenty of time for the easy tour into Bow Hut. The pack on my back is reasonably heavy, perhaps because the extra space from not carrying the big camera got filled by five cans of beer. The rule that nature abhors a vacuum also applies to packs.
The weather forecast for the weekend is bad: two days of storms followed by slowly clearing skies. We set a good pace across Bow Lake under a mostly cloudy but bright sky. The creek in the canyon is flowing and there are a couple places where the trail is close to the water – careful not to fall in! The good pace continues up and out of the canyon and around the flats and we pause only briefly for a snack and water before starting the march up the headwall to the hut. The forecast storm is arriving as we work our way up, with snowflakes starting to fly and the wind picking up. We get to the hut in just under 3 hours, good time, and meet Josef, Phil and Ben, who arrived less than an hour ago after skiing in from Peyto hut.
The hut is full with a big herd of CMC folks who are there to party and another group that missed the descent from the Nic/Olive col to Balfour hut, ended up on top of the big cliffs, and bailed back the Bow hut, which is now a full house. Outside it is snowing hard and the wind blows with hard gusts all night. Our mood is not optimistic for tomorrow.
We wake up early along with the rest of the hut. The storm is still blowing, with light snow and zero visibility. Everybody else in the hut is going down, out to the highway, and we are the only ones going up on the Icefields today.
After breakfast and packing, we march off into the storm and up the glacier, with the wind getting stronger as we go higher. Near the top of the slope before the flat of the icefield we stop to put on goggles and face protection, even thought the temperature is not too cold at around -8. Swinging around St. Nicholas we see a very large crevasse looming out of the blowing snow and we move to the left around it, but see that it continues down the glacier. There is a wide bridged section, perhaps 50m wide, out of 150m of open crevasse, and we carefully cross in the middle, probing for weak spots. A little scary because of the size of the crevasse and the bad weather, but the crossing goes fine, and we continue on towards the Nic/Olive col.
A few 100m later we see another large crevasse to our right and give it a wide berth. We have all been up on the Wapta numerous times, and with all the years of backcountry experience in this area over the years none of us have seen these large crevasses exposed in that area. Perhaps they are open this winter because of the low snow pack or perhaps the glacier has opened due to recent hot summers. We climb up to the Nic/Olive col, breaking trail through 20cm of storm snow with the relentless wind now at our backs, and as we pass the col we decide to keep the ski skins and rope on because of the poor visibility.
The ski down to Balfour hut, down the Vulture glacier, is a steady shuffle through fairly heavy powder on the gentle gradient. Being in front of the rope, with nothing but subtle shades of white in front is hallucinogenic, with no reference to which way is up, and occasionally losing balance in the gently undulating terrain. Because we have all been here before and are familiar with the route, we may have been able to find the hut in the bad visibility of the storm without GPS navigation, but it certainly would have been more stressful and taken much longer! We get to the Balfour hut in 4.5 hours, after skiing from 11:00 – 15:30, and dive into soup and lunch. One advantage of the bad weather is that we have this hut all to ourselves!
Discussion in the evening revolves around what sort of miraculous change in weather it would take to make us consider going up over Mt. Balfour tomorrow. With the 20cm of storm snow and strong winds over the last two days the avalanche danger is high, and the route over Balfour is threatened by large slopes and glacial seracs. We give ourselves a 5% chance of continuing south on the tour, but there are several safer options which include heading back to Bow Hut tomorrow or skiing the Diableret glacier and staying here for another night.
Evening drama and entertainment involves hunting for icicles, collecting snow for water and listening to the wind howl while we play cards. The storm blows on and it’s a cold, windy walk to the outhouse. I’ve underestimated my toilet paper budget and the roll is getting thin, requiring some desperate trading of “treats for squares” when I get back to the hut. Meanwhile the whiskey over icicles tastes good and the hut is slowly warming up from having the stoves running while we cook dinner and melt snow. Both Bow and Balfour huts are fairly high, 2350m for Bow and 2470m for Balfour.
The morning discussion revolves around three choices for the day: up over Balfour, which is quickly dismissed as too dangerous due to avalanche danger from the storm snow, strong winds and high overhead hazard on the route. Second option is to go make turns on Diablarete glacier, which would mean returning to this hut for the night. Third option is to go back to Bow hut, with a summit of Olive or Gordon on the way. The weather is clearing, which tilts the vote for the “go high” option, plus the return to Bow gives us the option of exiting to the highway if the weather turns back to crap tomorrow.
So up the Vulture glacier we go, back towards Bow Hut, with the sky opening nicely so that we can actually see our shadows for the first time in a couple days. The views back to Balfour hut, nestled in the glacial moraine below Mt. Balfour, are stunning as we work up the glacier and the clouds open and close above us.
Once we get to the Nicholas / Olive col we meet up with an ACC group who are working their way up the ridge on Olive and have broken most of the trail for us. It’s a pretty basic winter scramble up Mt. Olive following the very aesthetic line of the north ridge, and quite easy when you are following a freshly made trail, thanks. There are a couple steep snow steps and some exposure on left and right, with great views across the col to the dramatic knife-edge of St. Nicholas, the vast open spaces of the Icefields, and the countless peaks of the main range of the Canadian Rockies in all directions.
After a quick stop at the first (false summit) we descend the ridge, following the footsteps, and then get decent ski turns down from the col and really good turns down the toe of the glacier to Bow hut under blue skies! What a treat! We are all surprised by the snow quality after all the wind over the last few days, and stop in the hut for lunch, drop the heavy gear, and head out for another run.
The brief window of good weather has closed, and it’s snowing lightly and blowing as we head up the glacier, but it’s so worth it as the turns coming down are excellent. We go up for a 2nd run, despite the blowing wind and cold fingers.
The second run is just left of the first two runs, at a slightly lower angle, and has excellent snow, more than boot deep, untracked and soft, with surprisingly regular pockets of snow like big, soft, shallow moguls. Super fun and we are all whooping and laughing at the end, then cruise down to the hut, tired, thrilled and looking forward to dinner!
Talking about plans for tomorrow before skiing out. Options are Mt. Gordon or Rhonda if the weather is good, a glacier ski run if the weather is not.
The day dawns beautiful and clear, and we decide to go up Mt. Gordon, which is a quick and simple tour from Bow Hut. The sun is out, but so is the katabatic wind, blowing down the slope off the icefields and making it cold on the face. Cresting the top of glacier and onto the icefield itself the wind is relentless, but it slows a bit once we are onto the flats.
The ski up Gordon is straight forward; about one kilometre across the icefield and then up a gentle slope and a broad ridge to the summit, skis on the whole way. We get great views of yesterdays route on Mt. Olive, with snow blowing off the ridge, and we move quickly to stay warm and are on top in a couple of hours.
We don’t hang too long on the 3200m summit as the wind is quite strong and it’s rather cold. A snack and some photos of the very impressive views down the south face and towards the Yoho Valley, 1600m below, and then we put skis back on and skitter across the rock-hard, wind-blasted snow on the ridge and back down to the icefield, getting some decent turns once we’re off the ridge. The wind is picking up surface snow and so even though the sky is mostly blue the visibility is hazy.
Ski back to Bow hut, relax and have lunch, chatting with a couple of new folks who just came over from Peyto, pack our stuff and it’s time to head out. Due to the warm weather today we are a little concerned about the avalanche conditions in the gully leading down from the hut as well as the very large bowl below the cliffs of St. Nicholas and ski quickly through this threatened area. The rest of the trip down and out is quick, as downhill trips usually are, and we are back at the car by early afternoon.
Good friends make these trips, and the constantly changing weather, from intense storm to mixed and finally clear skies made for some great drama and spectacular views.
Thanks for a great trip guys!
Darren Foltinek, ©2014